While it goes against conventional wisdom, I’m a staunch opponent of the idea that sex is always better with someone you love. To me, sex is like basketball: a pleasurable activity you can do with alone or with others, with varying degrees of formality. And pickup basketball can be quite invigorating.
After four years with an exclusive, committed partner, they usually know at least four to six things that you reliably like doing. You’ve likely brought up your kinks and turn offs. You’re unafraid to say “one inch to the left.” But sex with the same person, with whom you currently have a minor standoff going over who’s going to call the landlord about the water spot in the ceiling in the kitchen, can also become rote in a way casual sex cannot.
Casual sex, of course, can suffer from its newness or lack of intimacy on occasion—we all have lackluster one night stand stories. But casual sex offers novelty. In the same way that it’s fun to stay in a hotel, even if you have no desire to live there, there’s something inherently sexy about getting down and dirty with a new person.
Because the delicate bubble of casual sex is very easily burst, here are some guidelines for making casual sex… well, casual.
Make like the Boy Scouts and be prepared.
If you’re in the market for casual hookups, always operate under the assumption that you two will be heading back to your place at the end of the night. Even though you’ll inevitably end up staying elsewhere from time-to-time, casualness is something that you should exude through your attitude, not your apartment’s cleanliness level, so best to just be prepared. Own more than one towel. Own at least as many pillows as there are sex participants. The amenities don’t need to be expensive or luxurious—you’re not opening a spa—but you definitely want your guests to feel comfortable. Perhaps the most important thing to have on hand? Condoms. You’re definitely going to need a stash of those. None of this hemming and hawing about how it feels better without one—if that’s you, then do yourself a favor and buy some better ones. Buy 17 different kinds so you can switch it up every night! I don’t care. If you’re having casual sex, accept that condoms will always be part of that equation.
Keep it light.
Casual sex, like a delicate mousse, is deceptively complex to get right, easily ruined by over-mixing, and—most importantly—best enjoyed when it’s light and fluffy. The point is, this isn’t the time nor the place for conversations about how you’re coping with your dad’s new girlfriend post your mom’s abrupt move to Barbados. Casual hookups can be militantly Sex-Only, or they can involve a drink or two at a nice bar with some Michelob Light-grade conversation. This is an occasion in which normally-lackluster topics like “Where did you grow up?” and “What do you do?” really shine. Now, this isn’t an invitation to be boring or taciturn, it’s just a plea for you to keep it easy-breezy. Ask about movies, books, or music if you want, but don’t try to peacock about your Bitcoin investment or SAT scores. Smoke a bowl. Invite someone over and tell them a little too much about red wine flavor profiles, which you learned from YouTube videos. Show them a video of your dog trying to climb a tree to get a squirrel. Avoid digging deeper.
This goes for activities as well as conversation. Don’t suggest hangs that can be easily misconstrued as a date—sit-down meals, movies, museums, and the like. That’s not keeping it casual. That’s a non-exclusive relationship. Or, more likely, one person gearing up to want more than casual sex.
Don’t get fancy with the spices.
There is a scene in Ratatouille that no one outside of my family remembers, in which Linguini accuses Remy (the rat chef) of “getting fancy with the spices.” In familial parlance it’s become shorthand for going overboard out of desperation to do well. Casual sex is not the place to try things with which you don’t already have a baseline comfort level. There’s a huge difference between, “I’ve never had sex in a car, wanna help me out?” and “Let’s dabble in BDSM tonight.” Being up for anything—a good outlook when it comes to casual sex—really means, “up for fairly common sex acts that we’re both comfortable with, perhaps with minor, fun twists.” It doesn’t mean you need to test drive your kinkiest fantasies.
Ask the hard questions after hookup #2
If you hook up with someone one time—say from a dating app, or a tipsy make out with a long-time acquaintance after your mutual friend’s house party—you don’t need to debrief the next day. The sine qua non of one-time sex is that it requires so little of us. If, however, you two fall into the horny pattern of repeating your no-strings boning, you need to establish some boundaries, especially if you ever see one another outside of the bedroom. At this point, you need to say something like, “Are you cool with keeping this casual? No big deal if you aren’t, I just want to be on the same page because that’s what I’m looking for.” And then if you crazy kids continue to engage in unattached sexcapades, set more specific rules from there, and accept that it won’t be the last time you talk about them. Casual sex does require some work after all.
Prolonged proximity leads to intimacy, whether you like it or not. If you hang out with someone long enough, you become friends, and then you’re friends who are regularly sleeping together and spending the subsequent day together, and then bam! The next thing you know, you’re at CVS getting them a cheesy Valentine’s Day card. I’m not suggesting you grab your pants and do a Mission Impossible dive out the nearest 5-story window the moment you’re finished coming. I’m just saying that breakfast is intimate, as is cuddling together for hours watching Tuca & Bertie, and intimacy and casualness tend to extinguish one another.
Read the room.
Most hookups don’t start with someone coming up to another person and asking, “Would you be down to have some sex tonight with no expectations for the future and no commitment whatsoever? I’m thinking we do it for about 4-6 months and let slowly let it taper out as we find other people that we’re actually into.” That’s not to discourage you from being open or direct, but to warn you of what casual sex requires. (Like all sex, it requires full, enthusiastic consent). In a casual relationship, however, someone may never explicitly end things with you. They may never tell you that they don’t want you to stay over after sex. If they’re a friend or acquaintance, you both may have to renegotiate your friendship a bit after you’ve slept together. You may need to navigate weird situations like what role you play at their birthday. Part of the agreement is that because things are so casual, a lot of communication is done with broad strokes and surface-level emotions, rather than long, sit-down, emotional conversations. Don’t ask for that, and don’t expect it.
Don’t make it weird.
This is the number one rule actually. You two aren’t dating, you don’t get a say on what they do or what they wear or who else they have relationships with. (I mean, you don’t get a say on what your partner wears when you’re dating, either). You only get to set your boundaries, and hopefully that meshes with their expectations too. Don’t get possesive. Don’t religiously stalk their Instagram. Don’t publicize that you two are hooking up. Don’t start going the extra mile by offering to pick up their parents from the airport, which sets up a dynamic that once again replicates dating. Just be cool, put in a moderate amount of effort, and have fun.
When you are too stressed to even think about sex.